By Deanna Rose von Bargen, RSCJ
My Mom was a cradle-Catholic, born in 1909, brought up on rules. My Dad had been brought up in a family with religious conflict, his mother a Missouri-Synod Lutheran, his Dad “easy-going nothing,” though HIS dad was from the northern Lutheran part of Germany.
Before they were married in 1933, my Dad surprised my Mom by becoming a Catholic in the nick of time. As I was growing up, he was choir director for High Mass at our parish church in the pre-Vatican II days, and later, a chief usher. Neither parent ever spoke a word about God at home, nor did we ever pray before meals. However, we “religiously” went to Mass every Sunday and I was sent to the Catholic School, grades 1-8, taught by Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, as was my only sibling, my brother, Wally, who was three years behind me.
My maternal grandmother lived in town. “Town” was Lewiston, Idaho, located in a river valley, later dubbed “small-town-America” by an RSCJ who visited me there one summer. Grandma was the great love of my life, and I of hers. She walked every day, even in snow and ice, the three blocks from her house to church, for daily Mass. She said her rosary every day (probably in German). Our parents often left Wally and me with Grandma when they went on trips. We loved staying with Grandma. In her/our bedroom (we all slept in the same room) she had two huge pictures on the wall, side by side, one of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the other of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
I also remember Catholic School, and the large pictures of Jesus on the flip-charts used to teach us about him. By 3rd grade, I knew I wanted to be a Sister when I grew up. The sisters, always seeming to be very happy themselves, had taught us that, if we wanted to, we could go into the church (next door) to make a visit to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, on the way to school, after school, or during recess or lunch break. I took full advantage of this suggestion; I had many chats with Jesus in that church. That's really where my vocation began. That intimacy with Jesus. It totally fulfilled me.
Another set of experiences came close to “totally fulfilling” me. Until I was old enough for a summer job, Wally and I went every summer to our Great Aunt Rose and Uncle Wallace's farm in Reubens, Idaho, at an elevation of about 4000 feet. Such happy times playing in the fields, bringing in the hay, milking the cows, “building furniture” with hammer and nails (from scraps left over from a family building project), making ice cream, digging and eating a carrot right out of the garden, having picnics under the fir trees, and just savoring the quiet and the exquisite beauty in this mountain prairie land – the vistas, the forest on the edges of the fields, the farm animals, the primitiveness and simplicity of the rural working poor, the love lavished on us by our aunt and uncle – all this touched my inner soul, too, and made me so happy. Aunt Rose and Uncle Wallace were also our Godparents. They loved us and we loved them, deeply.
Time went on, and our class went to the one high school in town after 8th grade. Kids from the public elementary schools dreaded our intrusion into the 9th grade with them, as we were the “average-raisers.” But most of us learned how to blend in to the public high school situation, how to yell the fight songs during the football games, and the girls how to march in the drill team at half-time. It was fun, but I feared losing my vocation in this secular environment, where the girls expected themselves to have a boyfriend.
In high school, I became friends with a girl who was Mormon (what were they ??), who wore glasses with red frames. She and I both played 2nd violin in orchestra which is where we met. We did our Latin homework together over the phone every school night for 45 minutes. Glad to have a friend, I remained very shy. Aside from her and a boy in trigonometry, it was mostly “the Catholic School kids” that I hung out with.
During public high school years, the Catholic teens were expected to go to the “De Sales Club” every Thursday night to meet with a Jesuit priest, so we wouldn't lose our faith. It wasn't really a “class”; it was a kind of fun discussion group, and the priest let us choose what we wanted to discuss. Usually the girls wanted to know how far we could go when dating, when we got into the “sin” area! Well, he told us girls, if you kiss a boy with the passion with which you would kiss a telephone pole, it wouldn't be a sin. And if you sit on a boy's lap, be sure there was a telephone book between the two of you.
It was during my junior year in high school that my vocation flared up again. Against my mother's warnings, I wanted to go to daily Mass during Lent. I could drive now (age 16-17) but Mom was afraid of the ice and snow while it was still wintery weather. I craved communion, however - my time alone with Jesus. Most of the time, Mom let me go.
Even when it came time to enter religious life, I still had no thought of ministry to others; all I wanted was a life of intimacy with God. The fact that I was a timid child, and a shy teenager, probably played into this desire and the (almost total!) lack of interest in ministry. But this is hind-sight, of course, and with time, I have overcome the shyness for the most part. HAD to!
I had also become aware of the narrowness of my life experience in “small town America.” In Spokane, Washington, 100 miles away, there were even escalators in some of the stores! And something called a “diocesan” priest. Our parish of St. Stanislaus in Lewiston had Jesuits, and I, of course, had assumed that all priests were Jesuit. I also discovered that Sisters of St. Joseph weren't the only kind of Sisters in the world! Spokane had Dominicans and Holy Names and even more.
By age 16 I had a summer job as a nurses’ aid in the hospital run by the CSJ Sisters. I took Sr. Teresa Marie aside one day to ask her if she could help me to assess some other congregations of Sisters, so I could make the right decision about where my life should go. She told me I was in luck, as the “vocation issue” of the monthly Sacred Heart Messenger had just arrived in the mail. It was FULL of very small rectangular “ads” for 52 congregations of Sisters, with a small photo (bust) of a nun in a habit, a line or two about the Sisters' mission, and an address where to write for information.
What to do?? So little information, so many communities! I decided I had to write to all 52. I sent my letters of inquiry, about seven per day, all written by hand, of course, via the mail box at school. I didn't want my mother to know what I was up to. Yet I knew it had to “hit the fan” sooner or later, so I gave my home as return address. Yup, the returns came, about seven per day, during the noon hour when I came home for lunch (the high school was only two blocks from my house). I opened each envelope, read the contents, then handed them to Mom and Dad (he also came home for lunch each day). My Mom was visibly upset; my Dad said nothing.
I sorted the 52 responses into three categories, from the most cloistered to the most active. The largest group was in the middle. The sorting didn't really help me much, though I picked one out of each extreme category: Carmelites at one end, and Daughters of Charity at the other (these were told by Vincent de Paul that their “cloister” was the streets, so they would be the opposite of Carmelites, for sure). The middle category puzzled me. Only one name interested me: Sacred Heart. (An aside: These past few years we RSCJ in Soboba have been working together on Indian Reservations with Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, and I think that was the community I was looking at, as a “discerning teenager,” because of their name.)
What's in a name? Why Sacred Heart? Every Sunday at my parish church of St. Stanislaus (named after a Jesuit novice, by the way), we had “Devotions to the Sacred Heart” at 3:30 pm. I and other Catholic School kids usually turned up to be “the choir” in the loft for these devotions. The statue of
Jesus in the church was that of the Sacred Heart. The sanctuary lamp that I loved, hanging from the ceiling in the dark church, indicating the Presence, was always red, the color of heart, the color of fire of love. And there were those pictures in my Grandmother's bedroom. All of this led me to the Sacred Heart.
I took my box of brochures to the Jesuit priest who had been leading the De Sales Club, asking for help! He had no use for the brochures, or for looking at them. He must have asked me something about what was drawing me, because I remember telling him about my attraction to Jesus crucified, and that I felt I wanted to “help” him. At this writing, I have no idea what I really meant by that. The priest simply said he thought I might like a community called “Madames of the Sacred Heart,” (as the Society was sometimes called at the time) because “they have a good blend of the active and the contemplative life.” If I wanted, he could give me the address of one of their colleges, in San Francisco. So he looked up Lone Mountain in the large Catholic Directory, and wrote out the address. I left him, a bit dejected, with only that small slip of paper, not even the name of the Superior.
I sat down and wrote the 53rd letter, “To Whom It May Concern, Reverend Mother Superior.” Many years later, a couple of the RSCJ who had taught at Lone Mountain told me they remembered the day that their superior, Leonor Mejia, RSCJ, had told them about me, this girl “out of the blue” from Idaho ...
Having been rather reserved in my letter of inquiry, and since I was writing to a place where the nuns ran a college, I asked for information about two items: the college and the community. By return mail, I got exactly those two things: a catalog of the college (San Francisco College for Women) and a fat red booklet by Janet Erskine Stuart, on the Society of the Sacred Heart, plus a polite and short letter of acknowledgement from Reverend Mother Mejia. There were no pictures in either booklet! The other 52 ALL had pictures of their Sisters in their various habits. This was the middle 1950's, after all. Nuns wore habits. Also there had been photos of Sisters engaged in ministry, praying, playing, looking happy. Where were the RSCJ photos?? The catalog had their names as professors, for pity sake.
I wrote back for a picture. What I got was a holy card of St. Madeleine Sophie, with a drawing or painting of HER in what the head-gear looked like in HER day – the fluted cap all splayed out like a Holy Cross Sister. Until I actually saw RSCJ the first day of college, I thought that's what they looked like!
I also kept up my correspondence with the Carmelites and the Daughters of Charity, just to be fair to God and to myself, I guess. Imagine this – I told the vocation director of the latter that they didn't have enough prayer in their life (for me)!! What an arrogant teenager. She responded by telling me, “My DEAR, we have FOUR hours of prayer each day!”
You can see I was bent on having my time alone with Jesus. So I liked the Carmelites. Nuns always put holy cards in their letters in those days. The holy card I got from the Carmel of Reno, Nevada, included a photo of the Sacred Heart from the noviceship of the RSCJ at Kenwood, Albany, New York; soon afterwards, a letter from Leonor Mejia, RSCJ, Lone Mountain, included the same exact photo (except one was black and white, the other in sepia). The one from the Carmelites came as a diptych, which included a piece written by Janet Erskine Stuart, RSCJ.
What in the world was going on, here?? (It turned out that a blood sister of an RSCJ was a Carmelite in Reno! I learned this only many years later.
Time went on, and Mother Mejia sent me an excerpt from THE WAY OF DIVINE LOVE, the story of private revelations by Jesus to Sister Josefa Menendez, RSCJ. I didn't even know what an “excerpt” was. To me it was just a religious booklet. The booklet of revelations of how much Jesus loves us touched me to the core, and I asked for more, that I might leave them around in the vestibule of the church, and on the city bus, etc. I received more and different excerpt booklets; I couldn't get enough. Finally, Mother Mejia sent me the book from which these had been taken, and I stayed up all night reading it with a flashlight in my attic room, hoping my parents wouldn't see the light. I was probably still a junior in high school. (They never caught me.)
Actually, I had done the same with the booklet on the Society by Janet Stuart. It was, and still is, 100 years after its composition, a most extraordinary piece of work. Nothing in it resembled what I had read on any of the brochures sent by the 52 communities into which I had previously inquired. It was all seriousness, and all depth. The “training” (noviceship) was described in daunting terms, and I knew I wanted it. In fact, I burned for it.
Even though some of the communities I had investigated invited me to finish high school with them as a postulant, in my senior year of public high school I began to think seriously about college. I had found out the vicar for the western vicariate of the Society lived in San Diego, and began writing to her. She invited me to come to summer school after I graduated from high school. My dad said we couldn't afford such high tuition. He and Mom had been through the Great Depression as teens and young marrieds and were still not very well positioned, financially, though Dad had begun to be promisingly successful as an insurance agent by then. Besides, San Diego was 1400 miles away, and travel was very expensive.
I went to the parish church in the dark, with the red sanctuary lamp to console me, and offered the sacrifice. My dad told me I could go to college in Spokane, to the Holy Names nuns; I could maybe get a scholarship, and would be close to home. He got me some information, and I wrote back to the registrar that I really wanted to see the Society of the Sacred Heart somehow. (Later, I found out that the registrar – an SNJM - had been a student at our Forest Ridge school in Seattle!) She wrote me a nice letter saying she understood.
I wrote to the vicar at the San Diego College for Women, Rev. Mother Rosalie Hill, saying I couldn't afford to come that far nor to pay the tuition, and that, therefore, I probably wasn't meant for the Society. She said, “come anyway”! I showed her letter to my Dad, who said, “Well, if she is going to make you an offer like that, why don't you go in the fall and really get an education.” So, I wrote again, and asked for that. It ended up that we paid a small amount, I worked off some of it, and some was gift. I was a boarder at the lowest rate, in a room for four. Little did I know how much fun it would be to have roommates, with another set of four next door, and yet another set of four down the hall from us, all amazing people, all of us on work scholarships. Four of us entered the Society.
My parents drove me to San Diego, my brother Wally with us, and for the very first time we all saw a real RSCJ. That person was Lucille Kraemer, totally beautiful, as portress the afternoon that we arrived. The veil was so thin, I thought to myself, “their neck shows!” Nuns weren't supposed to look like this. (I was used to the CSJ in Idaho, neck and chest swathed in white).
It was August of 1957 and I was 18 ½. I was left at the college a week before I should have been there, because Wally needed to get back to Idaho in time to start his high school year. Lucille Kraemer was the one who glided into my room, where I was all alone, the first morning, to awaken me with “Sacred Heart of Jesus, Immaculate Heart of Mary...” I didn't know I was supposed to respond, “I give you my heart,” but she seemed like an angel that morning, waking me for Mass.
I was all eyes. I watched the nuns like a hawk. They glided through the hallways in silence, close to the walls, but always gently and eagerly greeting anybody in their path. They didn't talk “nun talk”; they spoke like very intelligent and down-to-earth human beings. They prayed in perfect silence in the chapel every morning before Mass. What a relief to see this.
I began my work scholarship that week. Beginning the following week, I had a hard time with the classes. I was not prepared for such serious scholarship! It was tough for me to spend so much time working, without enough time to study. But I weathered it, and kept watching the nuns. I was head over heels. I had found the right community!
In summertime I worked as a first-aid nurse during Lewiston's yearly pea harvest. When there were few or no work injuries during my 12-hour shift, either in the fields or in the processing plant, I had time to read. It was then that I read The Life and Letters of Janet Erskine Stuart. In reading that book, it was confirmed that I had found the right community. Various RSCJ friends of mine have told me they sometimes feared being “kicked out” or “sent home” from the noviceship. That possibility for myself simply never occurred to me. I had FOUND the right community, and that was that.
I was accepted into the Society after my sophomore year in college at SDCW, and was a “foundation stone” for the new noviceship at El Cajon, just east of San Diego. Actually, I was quite disappointed that I could not go all the way to Albany, as I would have enjoyed such a daring leap across the country, and into God's arms. That was the way I had been thinking about it.
A vocation story does not stop with entering the novitiate. I will spare the reader the part about going through the Vatican II “changes”, etc. I wore a habit of some sort for nine years only. I had to get over my shyness, and have done so, little by little. I found my niche as a faith-formation educator in parishes. I now really enjoy being with all sorts of people, including as a retreat companion. I am SO grateful that I found a community with a strong contemplative bent, and a community of educators. I love learning, and want never to stop. And I love being an educator.
Currently I enjoy living among Native American Indians, and spending time with them exploring the ways of relationship with God, and what's in the bible. The kind of prayer I am drawn to, most recently, is Centering Prayer, a prayer of deep union. I am like a Carmelite with a Sacred Heart vocation. Sometimes I'm part Benedictine (they were my surrogate community when I returned to Idaho for a few years recently, to care for my aging Mother), and even part Zen Buddhist! God is everywhere.
In closing, one final story. In my 40's and 50's I belonged to a summer camping and back-packing group, usually including RSCJ and Dominican Sisters. We used to tell lots of stories around the campfire, including vocation and convent life stories. Society Archivist Margaret Phelan, RSCJ, was one of the camping buddies.
Some years ago, when Margaret was archivist for the former United States Province, she received a bunch of files from the recently closed Newton College of the Sacred Heart and its attendant office of provincial superior. She found a letter from a Jesuit priest of the Oregon Province, Andrew Vachon, to Rev. Mother Theresa Hill, RSCJ, in Boston, written around 1956, saying that he had met this young girl in Lewiston, Idaho, who would make a good candidate for the Society. Margaret made me a copy and sent it to me immediately, saying, “this has GOT to be YOU!” And, of course, it was... Andy Vachon was from Newton, Massachusetts, and had run away from home at age 16 to join the Jesuits in the west! Later in his life he was a professional artist and painter, and his pen & ink illustrations of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius were received by Rev. Mother Theresa Hill for hanging in the halls of Newton College. Copies also hung in the noviceship dormitory at El Cajon. This is the same priest who pointed me to the Society, the same one who said it wouldn't be a sin for a kiss between boy and girl to be like kissing a telephone pole!